A "ghost, a living dead, a young woman back from a kind of hell that bears no name."
These are the words of Aminatou Haidar, a human rights activist from Western Sahara, upon her release in 1991 from captivity by Moroccan security officials. Ms. Haidar hails from Western Sahara, a coastal nation just south of Morocco. The people of Western Sahara, the Sahrawi, are a traditionally nomadic people who were for centuries self-sufficient and content. But today 180,000 Sahrawis survive on donated food in refugee camps which dot the scorched dunes of western Algeria.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until Spain withdrew in 1975, but Sahrawi hopes for independence were dashed when Morocco promptly invaded. The UN’s International Court of Justice ruled in October 1975 that Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara was illegitimate. The Sahrawis have been fighting for liberation ever since. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (the government in exile) is recognized by the Organization of African Unity and by 75 individual nations as the legitimate government of Western Sahara.
A 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire agreement promised a referendum for national self-determination, but Morocco has spent the succeeding decade doing everything in its power to prevent the referendum from actually taking place. While the Sahrawis languish in exile, their leaders weigh continued patience against going back to war to regain their homeland.
Aminatou Haidar has dedicated her life to fighting the injustices and grave human rights violations perpetrated against the Sahrawi people. In the early 1980’s, after having lived through the atrocities committed by the invading Moroccan forces in her youth, Ms. Haidar joined a non-violent resistance against the colonizers.
In 1987, when she was 21 years old, she was one of 700 peaceful protestors arrested for participating in a rally in support of a referendum for self-determination. Seventeen women, including Ms. Haidar, were among more than 70 who were "disappeared". She was subjected to the worst kinds of torture, including electrical shocks all over her body. At other times, she was detained in cramped spaces where she was forced to stand most of the time.
She was completely isolated from the outside world throughout her detention. Her health has been permanently damaged by these five years of torture and abuse suffered at the hands of the Moroccan police.
Since her release in early 2006, Aminatou Haidar has tirelessly led an international awareness campaign to make known the human rights violations perpetrated daily against the Sahrawi people by the Moroccan State in the occupied territories of Western Sahara.
I have been to the desert refugee camps where the Sahrawi people sit wasting away as the world turns a blind eye toward their condition. They live and die in camps just across the Algerian border, unable to go home to the land that was taken from them.
The greatest human rights challenges of our day are represented by situations like that of Western Sahara. Many people have never heard of the Sahrawi. There are no Hollywood celebrities that have taken up the cause of the Sahrawi people. It is these forgotten people that need the strongest and most dedicated human rights campaigners. Aminatou Haidar embodies the strength of the human spirit and the enduring desire for freedom. Without the efforts of people like Ms. Haidar, the most egregious human rights violations might go quietly unnoticed in the forgotten corners of the world.
On November 12, Ms. Haidar will be recognized for her tireless efforts when she is presented with the 2008 R.F.K. Human Rights Award in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights was established in 1984 to support courageous individuals from around the world who have dedicated their lives to confront severe human rights violations.
I am pleased that we will take an evening to recognize the life and work of Ms. Haidar because she has given a voice to the voiceless, and no one is in greater need of this than the Sahrawi people.